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Power down, schools closed and flights grounded: Winter storm sweeps parts of U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A massive winter storm is sweeping across northern and central parts of the country today. Freezing rain, ice, heavy snow and strong winds knocked out power, closed schools and grounded thousands of flights. In parts of Iowa, blizzard conditions from blowing and drifting snow forced some of the Republican candidates to cancel events just three days ahead of the presidential caucuses. And behind the snow, dangerous, bitter cold will be settling in from the Great Plains into the Great Lakes area. From Chicago, David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: After what was almost a warmest November and December on record, you'll have to excuse some Chicagoans if they've forgotten how to do this.

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SCHAPER: There's been a dusting or two of snow, and a couple of inches fell back on Halloween that quickly melted. But this storm is the real deal. Snowfall totals so far range from two inches in parts of the city to EIGHT to 12 inches further west and northwest, with much more snow on the way.

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COLE STALLARD: The snow fleet is addressing snow and ice along Chicago's arterial streets, along with DuSable Lakeshore Drive.

SCHAPER: Chicago's Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Cole Stallard says more than 300 snow plows are out across the city around the clock.

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STALLARD: So we make sure that those main streets are safe, passable for our emergency vehicles, our buses and our passengers and our visitors coming into the city.

SCHAPER: Public health officials are urging people to be cautious when shoveling this cement snow, the heavy, wet variety that could cause back injuries and even heart attacks from overexertion. The weight of that wet snow, along with high winds, is snapping tree limbs and knocking down power lines. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the Chicago area and across the Midwest have lost electricity.

GIL QUINIONES: Restoring the current outages and any future outages is our top priority.

SCHAPER: Gil Quiniones is CEO of Illinois power provider ComEd.

QUINONES: Currently, we have additional ComEd crews who are working to quickly and safely restore outages in Chicago and systemwide in northern Illinois.

SCHAPER: Quiniones says those crews are working under harsh conditions that are about to get worse, with wind gusts in some areas of 40 to 60 miles an hour and temperatures plummeting. It's already in the single digits or below zero in many parts of Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. In Lincoln, several drivers idle in their plows before trying once again to clear the streets of the heavy blowing and drifting snow as the wind chill nears 20 below. Clayton Engelman, transportation maintenance coordinator for the city, says conditions are as challenging as they've ever been.

CLAYTON ENGELMAN: I do not remember a storm in recent memory, at least, that is both this heavy and this cold that we've competed with.

SCHAPER: And for the unhoused, the bitter cold can be life-threatening. Sixty-four-year-old Marvin Gaddy warms up in a public library in Kansas City before the deep freeze there blows in. Temperatures are expected to drop to nearly 10 degrees below zero this weekend.

MARVIN GADDY: I got three pair of jeans on. Yeah. One, two - oh, there's the other one. It keeps me comfortable. And I got long johns on, too, so - just surviving.

SCHAPER: Gaddy and some others who are unhoused say they find homeless shelters too restrictive. So he and a group of his friends plan to sleep where they usually do - under a bridge on Brush Creek.

GADDY: We take a little walk before we settle down to get our bodies warmed up, so when we get in our sleeping bag, you know, we're warm. We got a blanket. We lay down, and then we get inside our sleeping bag and just hunker down, man, and don't come out until the sun come back up.

SCHAPER: But public health officials are urging even those who are most resistant to find some place to go indoors this weekend because it could be a matter of life and death. For NPR News, I'm David Schaper in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.